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Defining Outcomes: 5 Questions that Every Organization Should be Asking

In my previous blog post, I emphasized that clearly defined outcomes are the foundation of operational effectiveness. Nevertheless, the unique challenges within the Federal government cause many agencies to struggle with outcome definition. Complex programs often work towards ambiguous goals, resulting in plans that are inherently difficult to monitor and fail to deliver. This makes it impossible for leaders to provide a clear direction that employees need to be effective and to feel that they are not only succeeding in their roles but are tangibly contributing to the mission.

So, how can government leaders buck this trend? We have found that the most effective, outcome-aligned organizations are able to answer five simple, yet crucial questions:

1. What is the mission of the organization?
2. What are the short- and long-term goals that support this mission?
3. What specific activities are required to achieve these goals?
4. How is the team aligned and deployed against these activities?
5. What are the metrics for defining and monitoring success?

In my conversations with government leaders, I’ve found that the further we go down this list of questions, the more they struggle to respond. When answering the first question, Public sector leaders tend to have very clear definitions of their organization’s overall mission. After decades of defending their funding, most agencies have learned the importance of describing their mission in a compelling way. The same can generally be said regarding the definition of goals. Senior leaders are generally effective at laying out their priorities and goals each year, which then typically cascade down through the organization via the performance management plans of the leaders below them.

Where outcome definition often breaks down is the linkage of specific program activities to the achievement of the organization’s goals. Public sector organizations have been known to accumulate programs over time and retain legacy activities that may not directly support current priorities and objectives. Strategic planning and the rationalization of activities are difficult and often controversial, so they are rarely done. Add in a seemingly never-ending list of mandates and “buzzword-of-the-day” initiatives and you end up with a mishmash of activities with only a tenuous linkage to what truly matters.

The next question in our list is one that doesn’t often get the attention that it deserves. Workforce capacity and alignment is commonly more a function of historical priorities and funding levels than current organizational priorities and workload. In the absence of activity rationalization and prioritization, the workforce is often working full speed just to stay afloat. This is not an easy challenge to solve, but the challenges of workforce optimization are dwarfed by the employee morale and motivation issues leaders face when all of this work isn’t effectively moving the needle on mission outcomes.

It should be clear at this point that any organization struggling with some or all the questions above will be at a loss when it comes to defining measures of success. A solid set of outcome-focused metrics builds on all the other pieces, ensuring that goals are being achieved, the right activities are being performed and workforce efforts align with important activities. Without purposeful success metrics, there is no way to know what progress is being made and whether you are improving operations in a meaningful way. At the same time, failing to answer the previous four questions can mean you are measuring the wrong things entirely, potentially resulting in decisions that do more harm than good.

While highlighting the unique challenges that government leaders face around defining outcomes may paint a bleak picture, my intent in doing so is not to deter. Instead, it is by acknowledging the realities of the environment we operate in that we can find opportunities to improve. Although answering these questions may seem daunting, the benefits in doing so for both the organization and the workforce are more than worth the effort.

Throughout the rest of this blog series, my colleagues and I will highlight success stories that demonstrate how an outcome-focused approach to operational effectiveness can produce measurable, lasting results, while simultaneously improving employee engagement and morale. Next week I’ll get right into how to get started by laying out some recommended first steps that have proven successful in addressing the five key questions for outcome definition.

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